• The number of single-sex independent schools has roughly halved since the early 1990s, with girls’ schools making up just 13%
  • Some girls’ schools have boosted admissions by becoming co-educational, while others have opened up residential places to international students
  • Headteachers and researchers are still divided over the benefits of single-sex education, with strong arguments and evidence being raised for and against

Just 13% of Britain’s fee-paying schools educate girls only. Although small in number, all-girls schools are big players when it comes to results. In the 2019 Sunday Times Parent Power independent school league table, they filled half the top 30 places for combined GCSE and A-level performance.

But critics of girls’ schools see them as a throwback to a bygone era when girls and boys were educated to fulfil very different roles in society. “If girls do not learn to socialise with boys as children, what happens when they go out into the workplace?” asked Richard Cairns, head of the co-educational Brighton College, in a controversial article for Independent School Parent least year. “They may have a clutch of A*s and a first-class degree, but if they cannot meaningfully converse and communicate with male colleagues they will be at a huge disadvantage.”

The decline in single-sex education in the UK suggests many young people and their parents agree and are voting with their feet – or rather their school application forms. The number of single-sex independent schools has roughly halved since the early 1990s.

Transforming fortunes by turning co-ed

Dunottar School in Reigate, Surrey, is among the statistics. It was founded as a girls’ senior school in 1926, but by 2014 just 118 places were filled, out of a maximum of 460, and it couldn’t cover its operating costs. Two huge changes have turned Dunottar’s fortunes around. The first was becoming part of United Learning, a group of almost 70 schools spanning the state and independent sectors. Dunottar is one of 13 private schools within United Learning, sharing resources, training and ideas group-wide.

The other big change was admitting boys. United Learning identified a gap in the local market for a co-educational, non-selective day school with strong pastoral care. Just four years after welcoming its first mixed cohort, student numbers have more than trebled, the proportion of boys is 47%, and the year-seven intake was so oversubscribed that the school added an extra class.

“Personally, I prefer co-educational schools because life is co-educational,” says headteacher Mark Tottman. “From a social and emotional, character-development and friendship-building perspective, I think it’s better to have boys and girls working together.

“The level of support and enthusiasm from parents and governors has been phenomenal,” he adds. “There’s been no resistance at all.”

Growing up in complex times

Just 15 miles away, Jane Lunnon, head of Wimbledon High School, believes there’s a greater need for single-sex education for girls now than when the school was founded in 1880. Far from struggling, her school, which educates over 900 girls aged four to 18, has seen a 30% increase in applications since she joined in 2014.

“Having taught for many years in a co-ed school, starting at Wimbledon High soon opened my eyes to the value of girls-only education,” says Lunnon. “The sexualisation of girls (and boys) in the media, social media and society is relentless. Single-sex schools give time and space for students to get unselfconsciously stuck in to all aspects of school life.”

From a social and emotional, character-development and friendship-building perspective, I think it’s better to have boys and girls working together

Mark Tottman, headteacher, Dunottar School

She’s noticed a gender divide in parents’ views. “We do often get fathers saying they want their girls to be educated alongside boys. They haven’t perhaps experienced what mothers have,” she reflects. “Some also seem to think that a single-sex school means living in a bubble. Far from it! Our girls mix socially with boys and partake in lots of joint activities.”

Wimbledon High is a member of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), a network of 25 girls’ schools, including two state-funded academies. CEO Cheryl Giovannoni echoes Lunnon’s views: “Girls today are growing up in complex times – social media and the digital world offer a great many opportunities, but also new challenges. Parents, of course, want academic excellence; but they, and we, should expect so much more from education.”

With mental health a huge issue for today’s teenage girls – and a huge worry for their parents – Lunnon and Giovannoni emphasise the importance of emotional support. “Pastoral care is as important to us as academic results,” stresses Giovannoni.

The GDST has introduced an app-based well-being toolkit called the Positive Programme across its schools and is extending its successful mentoring programme with an app that connects sixth-formers with GDST alumnae. For teenagers making important decisions about their studies and careers, the sharing of experiences and advice can be life-changing.

Stronger together

Initiatives like these are a major benefit of operating within a group structure. With ever-increasing demands on schools – data protection, safeguarding, multichannel marketing, and much more – being part of a well-resourced network has obvious advantages.

Tottman highlights three main benefits of belonging to United Learning’s large and varied group of schools. “Firstly, the constant sharing of ideas across the group means my staff and I are continually learning and adapting, which improves the school experience for pupils and parents,” he says. “Secondly, the sharing of back-office functions – such as HR, legal and finance – brings cost savings, which we pass on to parents through lower fees. The third benefit is access to capital: United Learning is funding construction of Dunottar’s new sixth-form centre and assembly hall, amounting to £6.5m of investment in our school.”

Single-sex schools give time and space for students to get unselfconsciously stuck in to all aspects of school life

Jane Lunnon, headteacher, Wimbledon High School

Both the GDST and United Learning have state-funded as well as private schools within their groups. With private schools’ charitable status under increasing scrutiny, working with state academies is one way of demonstrating public benefit.

The GDST is also a major provider of bursaries. “One in eight GDST senior school girls benefits from our bursary scheme, and 40% of those receive full bursaries. We have ambitious targets to increase this number,” says Giovannoni.

A world of possibilities

Delivering a traditional all-girls education or turning fully co-ed aren’t the only options. A growing number of schools offer ‘diamond model’ education. Boys and girls are educated together at the beginning and end of their schooling, but separated into single-sex classes for some subjects (usually science, maths, PE and English) in the pre-teen and early teen years. Creative subjects, mealtimes and enrichment activities remain mixed, so girls and boys gain the social benefits of co-educational schooling but with teaching tailored to their different learning styles. In Cambridge, the Perse School – an inspiration for Ronald Searle’s St Trinian’s comic strip – recently adopted this approach.

In an increasingly global society, other schools are taking an international outlook. The all-girls North London Collegiate School, for example, has franchises in Dubai and Korea with another planned in Singapore.

In the boarding sector, British schools are seen as the gold standard, and the weak pound has made them especially attractive to overseas parents. As boarding becomes increasingly expensive for British families, prestigious schools are filling residential places with international students, with China by far the biggest market. Schools taking pupils from outside a non-EEA country (excluding Switzerland) need to hold a Tier 4 sponsor licence issued by UK Visas and Immigration, and the Independent Schools Council (ISC) reports that over half of its 1,326 members are Tier 4 sponsors. An ISC survey of its member schools showed they had 28,513 non-British pupils whose parents live overseas in 2018, and that 93% of these were boarders.

Girls’ schools – here to stay?

In 2014 the American Psychological Association looked at 184 studies involving 1.6 million students worldwide. They found only trivial differences in the achievements, attitudes and aspirations of those who had attended single-sex schools. A 2006 study by the University of Buckingham revealed that gender balance wasn’t an important factor in a school’s success. “The main determinants of a school’s performance are the ability and social background of the pupils,” concluded the researchers.

And yet, girls’ schools continue to punch above their weight in exam league tables, and their alumnae dominate public life (four out of five female members of the cabinet, and eight of the BBC’s 10 highest-earning female presenters attended girls’ secondaries). As such, these schools are likely to find favour with some families for a long time to come.

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